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Feed the cat first: Its basic needs must be met before you move on

I had a cat. Actually, I hosted several of Michigan’s most pampered felines at our research center for products such as Tidy Cat and Kitty Litter. All they had to do is eat, play, sleep and do what cats are supposed to in the litter box.UghBut one cat, affectionately named Ugh, lived at home with my wife, Darlene, and me. When it came to making demands, Ugh could teach “Garfield” from the comics a thing or two. When Ugh wanted to eat, he ate then. That’s because there was no ignoring him; Ugh made my life miserable until I attended to his bowl first thing every morning.Feeding Ugh the second I opened my eyes did not come naturally. I tried to ignore Ugh, but he had none of that. After a few falls from his crisscrossing under my legs while howling for attention, I learned that I wouldn’t get peace until I fed the cat.

Business first

I write about my cat because there’s a business allegory here. An entrepreneurial venture is a lot like my relentless pet. Its basic needs must be met daily before you can move on to strategic planning or hatching the next “big idea.”

The “cat” is your employees, your suppliers and your financiers. If you don’t feed them first with your funds, they will either wail until you do or simply disappear when you need them the most. It’s often hard, especially in the early stages, to resist delaying payments to people as long as possible.

Do what you have to do

But I know I never could have survived my first year in business by practicing such tactics. The first check I wrote each week was to my one employee, Bob Follett. I borrowed money for supplies only in unsecured loans; first in 30-, then in 60- and later 90-day notes. And I paid each debt the day it was due. If I drew no salary, so be it.

I also made sure that I paid my suppliers immediately, instead of stringing them along like some entrepreneurs do. In fact, I often negotiated a discount for paying early. If the terms were net 30 days, I might offer to pay within a week for a 5% discount. Most suppliers, frustrated by receivables that came late or not at all, thought it well worth the discount to get their money immediately. I saved thousands — and later millions — of dollars each year, which I funneled back into growing my company.

A little pain, a lot of gain

Sticking without fail to this practice was not always easy, but it eventually elevated my pet-industry business to the point where I referred to it as “The Golden Cat.” Feed your “cats” first, and they’ll be right there on your doorstep when you need them. Neglect them, and you’ll learn that they have a memory as long as their nine lives.

This column is one in a series that explores the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe that these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.

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